Review: The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

The Donner Party incident has, over the century and a half since it was first publicized, become a part of the shared American history mythos. Unfortunately, it has also suffered from its notoriety – reduced to a sad tale at best and a punch line at worst. Like most people, I knew almost nothing of the tragedy itself when I picked up this book. I only knew the barest of facts – a group of wagon trainers caught in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains during brutal winter conditions who resorted to cannibalism to survive. As with all well-known historical episodes, however, there was, and is, much more to the story.

Instead of trying to focus on as many party members as possible, Daniel James Brown instead centers his narrative of the tragedy around one survivor, newlywed Sarah Graves Fosdick, who was only 21 when she set out with her husband and family on the journey. Through Sarah’s eyes, Brown is able to then illuminate the other victims much as another human being would, instead of relegating them to a catalog of facts.

The best history books transform their subjects from unknowable objects into what history truly is about – real people who dealt with monumental circumstances. Brown’s writing is superb, not only for having achieved this goal but for the way he brings us into what it meant to be alive in 1846. His research encompasses not only the Donner Party itself, but the social and economic forces which spurred the great American migration westward, along with practical and relevant knowledge about everyday life in the middle of the nineteenth century. All of these factors played a part in the choices these people made, and how those choices ultimately spelled their doom.

Daniel James Brown has written a seminal work on the history of the Donner Party incident. Anyone interested in this tragic, wholly American story would do well to read it.

11 May 2009


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